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Quality in Rifts: Remembering Pete Overton

Lest We Forget

By Pete Overton

November 11th, 1999

Picture © 1999, Andy Donato of the Toronto Sun

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields"

Today is Remembrance Day. I am not religious by any means, but if I had one day of the year that I take very seriously, it is this day.

There is a certain level of irony in this situation, and you'd have to know me to really appreciate it, but basically I have a horrible memory. I don't retain a lot generally speaking unless it's tagged onto something else. Yet arguably Remembrance Day is the most important day of the year to me. I dislike Christmas not out of some commercialism rant or anything, just too used to having my birthday right next door to it. Easter is too fluffy, Halloween too showy. Thanksgiving is the other one that I feel a mild twinge for, but even that is secondary to Remembrance Day. However, with such a terrible day-to-day memory, I never, ever miss a Remembrance Day, and it's one of the few days of the year that I actively enforce on others. The day to remember those who have gone before us is the day the amnesiac takes most seriously. Heh.

It wasn't always like that. In my youthful days, it was just another holiday. Back in the good old days when we still got the day off, ostensibly to attend ceremonies and such. Even when I moved into Scouting and they eliminated the day off aspect of it, it was still just another day when all the old people got really emotional. There was no firm grasp of anything behind it, because frankly no one really explained it to us kids. They mostly told us to be quiet around 11 AM and we had to endure an assembly and mass (Catholic school, you see). But in a practical sense, there was nothing really to get so excited about. No gifts, no days off anymore, no nothing. You didn't even get to dress up.

By the time I hit high school, I had a firmer grasp of the day, but it was still elusive. Our teachers didn't really "bring history alive" as they say. They taught us all of the facts and dates and places, but didn't really do much to humanize it or bring it into context. Telling us that 10,000 soldiers died in a day was like saying there are a billion stars in the universe. Both numbers were equally difficult to get a conceptualization of. Besides, said us, Canadian history is so boring, goodness, let's go watch Star Trek instead. If anything, the teachers in high school took it even MORE seriously, but still the finer points of the day were lost on us. Sure, we wore poppies, and had an assembly and mass, but it was just another day, and rarely was the entire school paralyzed in silence at the appointed hour, but casually chatting away or working on homework or what have you.

Then I discovered military history.

During the arduous course of my life, I had been involved in a great many roleplaying games. By inspiration of them, I originally started to read material that would aid in my playing those games. Some were fantasy games, to which I hefted up Feist, Tolkien, Weis & Hickman. Some were cyberpunk games, to which I sought out Sterling, Gibson, Dick and their ilk. But a great many of the science fiction games were of a warrior nature. But it wasn't until our lunch hour games of Twilight: 2000 did my interest in all things military begin to shape itself. That was when I started looking around in earnest for material that would let me portray Dr. Katrina Black, drafted into the war effort for her medical knowledge. As she was educated into the military lifestyle, so was I. Most of the books were of a functional nature, however. Organization, theory, tactics, and so forth. Actual military history still eluded me because there was little in history that *I'D* be interested in, said I.

I can't pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred, but finally came the day when I started to hear of thrilling and noble stories of war, of places with names like Normandy, Dunkirk, Dieppe, the Somme, and hundreds of others. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that these were real events! That was when I started to turn away from Clancy's nonfiction pseudo-Jane's style books (I still read them, of course) and turned more towards the contextual and historical material of men like Keegan. Vietnam never really held my interest (except for occasional movies and TV shows), but these World Wars were utterly fascinating. And there was an undying wealth of material attached to it! I dove right in, and from that point on, even assuming I wasn't already this hyperempathic person, I was touched.

War is never black and white, or clean and neat. It's a messy, dehumanizing, terrifying situation that twists what you know and breaks you from who you were. Luckily, I can never know this except from an academic point of view (which is insufficient to the task but will have to do). I still have a book called Trench Warfare that I hold as a bible for why each year I get all weepy and stop and talk with the veterans I see. I remember a quote from a soldier in the trenches of World War I: "You couldn't conceive of God in a place like this, because you were literally in Hell." Literally, folks. To this day, I don't think I'd have the mental fortitude to endure what they did.

Our society is funny, that way. It's very much a case of love the sinner, hate the sin. Some of the most noble and honourable archetypes we have are based on soldiers, or heroic actions in war, and yet we are continually told that war is a very bad thing. And yet here in Canada you have veterans that can barely get a level of care adequate to their needs, and sometimes cannot at all. And that's what honks me off here.

I won't blanket-statement my whole generation (the post-Boomer generation) because I personally know of folks who take this as seriously as I do. But as a whole, I can't help but notice the respect for our veterans diminishes. I think of all the things, that is what must hurt them the most. Their numbers diminish with each year, and soon we will have no firsthand soldiers of the two greatest wars fought in human history. Today during the two minutes of silence, there were people going on about their busy lives, one guy was chatting on his cell phone, two punks were wrestling, and just general ignorance. I almost got into a fight over it actually as I started yelling at whoever was in range. How's that for irony, getting into a fight over lack of respect for Remembrance Day. But the callous disregard was painful for me to see. I was unfortunately trapped working this morning (despite intense pleading otherwise) and was listening to the services on the radio and I kept breaking into tears (still do) and these people were looking at me like I was insane. How can you possibly explain it to them? If they don't take the time to really understand, it can't be done.

How do you explain the sheer horrors they experienced? The death, the chaos? How can you explain to them to take ten of their friends out for a night and can only come back with three, the rest forever out of touch? How can you explain to the ever-so-busy businessman what it must have been like to hold someone who was like your brother and watch him die before your eyes? How can you explain the sheer fatigue, the bitter cold and constant fear of death? Walking along with your friend one moment and his head blown off by a sniper the next? How do you explain to two punks that if it wasn't for these folks, we wouldn't have all of the freedom and rights we have? How to make them understand what life would be like were it not for those courageous people?

And yet...

How to explain their seemingly unflagging determination, so strong that it literally kept them going when they would have just keeled over and died? How do you convey the tragic nobility involved in storming that beach and being first out of the boat running headlong into certain death? How do you explain that pervading sense of sacrifice, an entire generation that when asked surrendered their own well-being and sanity and marched headlong into a Hell far more literal than any afterlife will ever be? How do you make them understand why the veterans all get that misty look when you shake their hand and thank them for all they did?

Damn, I'm at it again.

It's not much to ask, you know. It's not even recognition proper that this day is about. It's about those who have died preserving what we all take for granted. It's about maintaining respect and never, ever forgetting that what we all have today was paid for in blood and tears. If you ask the veterans what they fear the most, the majority of them will answer that they are afraid of being forgotten, for their sacrifices and horrors to be casually plunked down in a textbook and passed away. To forget that human element, to enact or by inaction allow to be enacted the gentrification of the past is to betray these men and women to the very core. And you know, it's just as simple as a thank you. Around these parts the local veterans all volunteer time to stand outside of stores and such and offer poppies with a donation box. Try thanking them and explaining why you are grateful for your freedoms, and you can just see it, their eyes light right up. Remembrance Day is mostly about remembering the fallen, but the living deserve it every bit as much.

I actually wear a poppy all year around. Only twice have I ever been challenged on it, and both times they backed off after I explained myself. The first was a veteran who felt I was dishonouring the poppy by using it as a "badge," and the second was a lady who thought I was being disrespectful or lazy. I told them both the same thing, and anyone else who asked about it. "One day isn't enough." And it isn't. My nature and my continued interest in military history make me continually appreciate everything they've done for me and society at large, and I'm so angry and appalled at the treatment of our troops presently in Canada, but that's another rant. To borrow a phrase, the government has forgotten the faces of their fathers.

In both world wars, Canada was right in there from nearly the start. It's unfortunate that subsequently to the present the Canadian military has been marginalized and ignored. I'm ever so proud of all of those, known and unknown, who have gone before me and secured this world for me. Sometimes I feel so stupid whining about the little dramas of my life when I realize what sheer horrors they endured, and rightfully so. Everything should be framed in the proper context.

That said, please, folks, take some time and remember those people who have made the world for us today. It's not perfect, no, but it was good enough that literally millions gaves their lives for it, and it should not be taken for granted. I urge you to spend an afternoon with some veterans (at the local Legion around here is perfect), visit your monuments (cenotaphs, statues, and other things you probably have made invisible into the terrain by now) and just simply reflect. I sure as heck don't know if there is an afterlife, but in case there is, consider it basic respect and good karma to think kindly of those who came to greatness by having extraordinary and scarily hellish circumstances forced upon them. This should be universally true of all human life, but particularly for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us all.

Never forget.

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